Designing for Tablets: Not Quite “Mobile”

Tablets (the iPad in particular) are increasingly popular right now, but web design patterns for tablets are still very much in flux. At IBM, tablets fall under the umbrella of “mobile computing” and many of IBM’s collaboration tools currently redirect tablet users to the mobile version of their site. Many other big industry players do the same: for example, Google+ currently redirects iPad users to their mobile site. On paper this makes sense – tablets are ultra-portable, and share much in common with other touch interfaces (the iPad is just a big iPhone, right?). In practice, I’ve found it’s not so simple.

Connections Mobile on Phones and Tablets

“mobile” sites for IBM Connections are great on phones, awkward on tablets

My team conducted a simple user study to get a basic understanding of what people wanted in their mobile, desktop, and tablet experiences. We asked users to perform a series of simple tasks using the IBM Connections mobile and desktop sites on a phone, an iPad, and a desktop browser. The results were perhaps obvious: for phones the mobile-optimized site was much preferred while the “normal” site was preferred for desktop browsers. For the iPad users unanimously preferred the desktop site despite the fact that some features (notably the rich text editor) were broken. People complained that the mobile site on the iPad felt “stretched and awkward” and that while they were glad that the navigation became more compact on the phone, they found it frustrating on the iPad. These findings are very similar to the public reaction to the Google+ iPad support: people do not want to use phone-optimized interfaces on tablets. Here are some new assumptions I’m working on when designing for tablets:

1) When it comes to browsing the internet, the iPad is not a mobile device

While tablets are often grouped into the “mobile” bucket, they are in fact only as mobile as laptop computers. There is a reason Steve Jobs introduced the iPad from a sofa – it’s not a “pull out of the pocket” computer. Traditional mobile websites are frustrating to use on a tablet. Single-column mobile layouts work great on phones, but can feel stretched and awkward on tablets. Unless you are willing to spend a lot of time tailoring a special tablet-optimized mobile site for the iPad, you are better off supporting and tweaking an existing desktop site for the iPad. A better strategy for supporting many different form-factors with a single site may be using responsive web design, but this is hard to pull off if you are working with a pre-existing site rather than starting from scratch.

2) When it comes to apps, people have high expectations for the iPad

iPad apps may have been “nice to have” at first, but the number of iPad users are growing at an alarming rate.  iPad apps are popular for a reason: they are easy to discover and install and they tend to be simpler, faster and more content-rich than their website or desktop counterparts. Popular services that don’t offer iPad apps will see 3rd parties rushing to fill the void. Facebook is a good example of how the app development ecosystem is struggling to fill the void created by Facebook’s lack of an iPad app. An interesting middle-ground is also emerging for developing app-like iPad websites, which can be just as successful as a traditional “app” but may be harder for people to discover or adopt (adding a website to the homescreen is something I don’t see people doing very often in the wild).

3) iPad apps may point toward the future of desktop installed apps.

The breakout iPad app Reeder has recently introduced a desktop app that is clearly inspired by their iPad release. The simplicity and clarity that users expect in iPad apps are so popular that desktop sites and apps are likely to follow suit. Dan Lythcott-Haims at Pandora recently said that Pandora redesigned their web site after the success of their iPad app’s simplicity. I expect that desktop applications will begin to look more and more like iPad applications: simpler, content-rich apps with a high attention to both experience and visual design.


Wish everyone would assume #3. I’ve learned to ignore so much stuff on a desktop website because too much of it ends up being ads or social plugins that don’t add to the content.

What are your thoughts on Windows 8 and the melding of tablet into a desktop operating system?

Windows 8 seems a big confused to me right now – they seem to have two parallel paths (desktop metaphors and tablet metaphors) running at once, which seems more confusing than anything else. Time will tell!